Proletarian experience

Fac­to­ries Near Mont de Cen­gle (Paul Cézanne, 1870)

A 1953 essay by Claude Lefort of Socialisme Ou Barbarie that represents part of the turn to the soci­o­log­i­cally ori­ented approach to the work­ing class fun­da­men­tal for the group’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary project, in par­tic­u­lar from 1953 through 1957.

There is no phrase from Marx more often repeated: “The his­tory of all soci­eties to date has been the his­tory of class strug­gle.”1 These words have lost none of their explo­sive poten­tial. Peo­ple are con­tin­u­ously pro­vid­ing prac­ti­cal com­men­taries, char­la­tans have obscured their mean­ing, replac­ing them with more reas­sur­ing truths. Yet must we still say that his­tory is defined entirely around class strug­gle, that his­tory today is defined entirely by the strug­gles of the pro­le­tariat against the class that exploits it, and that his­tor­i­cal cre­ativ­ity and the cre­ativ­ity of the pro­le­tariat are today one and the same? On these points, there is no ambi­gu­ity in Marx. He wrote: “Of all the instru­ments of pro­duc­tion the great­est pro­duc­tive power is the pro­le­tariat itself.”2 But rather than sub­or­di­nate every­thing to this pro­duc­tive power and inter­pret the devel­op­ment of soci­ety as a whole in terms shaped by that of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary class, pseudo-Marxists of all kinds have tried to base the con­cep­tion of his­tory on less move­able grounds. They have con­verted the the­ory of class strug­gle into a purely eco­nomic sci­ence and claim to have derived its laws in the image of those of clas­si­cal physics, deduc­ing a super­struc­ture and thereby con­flat­ing class com­port­ment3 with ide­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena. Tak­ing an expres­sion from Cap­i­tal, they say that the pro­le­tariat and bour­geoisie are “per­son­i­fi­ca­tions of eco­nomic cat­e­gories,” the for­mer of wage labor and the lat­ter of cap­i­tal. The strug­gle between them is the mere reflec­tion of an objec­tive con­flict, the nature of which is tied to a given period as a func­tion of the devel­op­ment of pro­duc­tive forces and exist­ing rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. Because this con­flict results from the devel­op­ment of pro­duc­tive forces, his­tory is essen­tially reduced to it, and is in the process unwit­tingly trans­formed into a par­tic­u­lar episode in the evo­lu­tion of nature. Simul­ta­ne­ously, the role of class and of human beings is vacated. To be sure, this the­ory does not dis­pense entirely with inter­est in the devel­op­ment of the pro­le­tariat, but restricts it to objec­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics – to exten­sion, den­sity, and con­cen­tra­tion. In the best sce­nario, these char­ac­ter­is­tics are then brought into rela­tion with large-scale pro­le­tar­ian actions. This the­o­ret­i­cal view­point mon­i­tors the nat­ural evo­lu­tion of a pro­le­tariat that it casts as an uncon­scious and undif­fer­en­ti­ated mass. The per­ma­nent strug­gle against exploita­tion, rev­o­lu­tion­ary actions and ide­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena that accom­pany them, are not the real his­tory of the class. They are mere expres­sions of an eco­nomic function.

Not only did Marx dis­tance him­self from this the­ory, there is an explicit cri­tique of it in the philo­soph­i­cal work of his youth. Accord­ing to Marx, attempts to grasp social devel­op­ment in itself, inde­pen­dently of con­crete human beings and the rela­tions they estab­lish amongst them­selves – be they of coop­er­a­tion or of con­flict – are expres­sions of the alien­ation inher­ent in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. Because they are made strangers to their work, because their social sit­u­a­tion is imposed on them inde­pen­dently of their will, peo­ple are inclined to grasp human activ­ity in gen­eral on the model of physics and to grasp soci­ety as a being in-itself.

Marx’s cri­tique did not destroy this ten­dency any more than he elim­i­nated alien­ation by reveal­ing it. On the con­trary, this ten­dency devel­oped out of other aspects of Marx in the form of a so-called eco­nomic mate­ri­al­ism that, with time, came to play a spe­cific role in the mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of the work­ers’ move­ment. Its dupli­ca­tion of the social divi­sion within the pro­le­tariat between the worker elite asso­ci­ated with the intel­li­gentsia and the masses fed into a com­mand ide­ol­ogy the bureau­cratic char­ac­ter of which is fully revealed in Stal­in­ism. By con­vert­ing the pro­le­tariat into a mass gov­erned by laws and its agency into an eco­nomic func­tion, this ten­dency jus­ti­fies the reduc­tion of work­ers to the sta­tus of exe­cu­tants within their own orga­ni­za­tions, which have become instru­ments of worker exploitation.

The pro­le­tariat is the real response to this eco­nomic pseudo-materialism. Its response is elab­o­rated through its prac­ti­cal exis­tence. Any­one who looks at its his­tory can see that the pro­le­tariat has not merely reacted to def­i­nite, exter­nal eco­nomic fac­tors (degree of exploita­tion, stan­dard of liv­ing, mode of con­cen­tra­tion), but that it has really acted. The pro­le­tariat has inter­vened in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary man­ner based not on some schema pro­vided by the objec­tive sit­u­a­tion, but on its total, cumu­la­tive expe­ri­ence. While it would be absurd to inter­pret the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment with­out con­tin­u­ous ref­er­ence to the eco­nomic struc­ture of soci­ety as a whole at the time, to reduce work­ers to that struc­ture is to con­demn one­self to ignore three-quarters of its con­crete class com­port­ment. Who would try to deduce a century’s worth of trans­for­ma­tions in worker men­tal­ités4, meth­ods of strug­gle and forms of orga­ni­za­tion on the basis of purely eco­nomic processes?

Fol­low­ing Marx, it is essen­tial to affirm that the work­ing class is not merely an eco­nomic cat­e­gory, but the “great­est of pro­duc­tive forces.” We must show how this is the case both against crit­ics and mys­ti­fiers and for the devel­op­ment of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory. But we must also rec­og­nize that this topic was only broached in Marx and that its expres­sion through his con­cep­tion of the pro­le­tariat remained con­cep­tu­ally unclear. He was often con­tent with abstract claims about the role of changes of con­scious­ness in class for­ma­tion with­out explain­ing what they meant. At the same time, in the inter­est of show­ing the neces­sity of fun­da­men­tal rev­o­lu­tion, he often depicted the work­ing class in terms so dark that they lead one to won­der how work­ers could pos­si­bly acquire con­scious­ness of their sit­u­a­tion and their role in the man­age­ment of Human­ity. Marx argues that cap­i­tal­ism has trans­formed the worker into a machine and robbed it of “every human phys­i­cal and moral char­ac­ter­is­tic” and that cap­i­tal­ism has removed from work all sem­blance of “indi­vid­ual inter­ac­tion.” The result has been a “loss of human­ity.” How­ever, accord­ing to Marx, because it is sub­hu­man, because it is totally alien­ated and an accu­mu­la­tion of all social dis­tress, the proletariat’s revolt against its fate can eman­ci­pate all of human­ity. (It requires “a class…for which human­ity is entirely lost and which can only recon­quer itself by con­quer­ing all of human­ity” or “the pro­le­tariat of the present day alone, totally excluded from all per­sonal activ­ity, is able to real­ize its total per­sonal activ­ity and no longer rec­og­nize lim­its on the appro­pri­a­tion of the total­ity of col­lec­tive forces.”5 ). At the same time, it is clear that pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion is not a lib­er­a­tory explo­sion fol­lowed by the instant trans­for­ma­tion of all soci­ety (Marx directed much sar­casm at this anar­chist naïveté). Rather, pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion is when the exploited class assumes the man­age­ment of all of soci­ety. But how could the pro­le­tariat suc­cess­fully take on the innu­mer­able social, polit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and cul­tural tasks that a suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion would bring if the night before it had been rad­i­cally excluded from social life? One response could be: the class under­goes a meta­mor­pho­sis through rev­o­lu­tion. But even as there is an accel­er­a­tion of his­tor­i­cal processes in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary period, one that upsets exist­ing rela­tions amongst men and estab­lishes com­mu­ni­ca­tion that links each to soci­ety as a whole, phe­nom­ena which are required for the extra­or­di­nary mat­u­ra­tion of the class that rev­o­lu­tion brings, nonethe­less it would be absurd, soci­o­log­i­cally speak­ing, to see the class as born of rev­o­lu­tion. Its mat­u­ra­tion is only pos­si­ble due to prior expe­ri­ence that it inter­prets and puts into a pos­i­tive practice.

Marx’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of the total alien­ation of the pro­le­tariat are linked to the idea that the over­throw of the bour­geoisie is the nec­es­sary and suf­fi­cient con­di­tion for the vic­tory of social­ism. In these cases, he is pre­oc­cu­pied with the destruc­tion of the old order and opposes to it com­mu­nist soci­ety, like a pos­i­tive is opposed to a neg­a­tive. These points show that Marx was nec­es­sar­ily depen­dent on a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. The unfold­ing of sub­se­quent decades requires us to think oth­er­wise about the pas­sage from the old order into a post-revolutionary soci­ety. The prob­lem of rev­o­lu­tion has become that of the proletariat’s capac­ity to man­age all of soci­ety. This requires us to think about the devel­op­ment of this capac­ity within cap­i­tal­ist society.

There is no lack of indi­ca­tions in Marx of the mate­r­ial that would be required to out­line another con­cep­tion of the pro­le­tariat. For exam­ple, Marx writes that com­mu­nism is the actual move­ment of over­throw­ing the exist­ing soci­ety that is pre­sup­posed by it. From a cer­tain view­point, this indi­cates con­ti­nu­ities that would link social forces in the exist­ing cap­i­tal­ist stage to the future of human­ity. More explic­itly, Marx high­lights the orig­i­nal­ity of the pro­le­tariat, which already rep­re­sents the “dis­so­lu­tion of all classes,”6 he says, because, it is not linked to any par­tic­u­lar inter­est, because it absorbs aspects of pre­vi­ous social classes and recom­bines them in a unique man­ner, and because it has no nec­es­sary link with the soil or, by exten­sion, with any nation. What is more, while Marx insists – cor­rectly – on the neg­a­tive, alien­ated char­ac­ter of pro­le­tar­ian work, he also shows that this same sit­u­a­tion puts the pro­le­tariat in a uni­ver­sal sit­u­a­tion because of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment which has enabled an inter­change­abil­ity of tasks and a ratio­nal­iza­tion of pro­duc­tion vir­tu­ally with­out lim­its. This enables us to see the cre­ative func­tion of the pro­le­tariat within Indus­try, which he calls the “open book of human forces.”7 In this, the pro­le­tariat appears, not as sub­hu­man, but as the pro­ducer of social life in its entirety. The pro­le­tariat fab­ri­cates the objects thanks to which human life con­tin­ues in all domains because there is no one who does not owe his con­di­tions of exis­tence to indus­trial pro­duc­tion. If the pro­le­tariat is the uni­ver­sal pro­ducer, it must some­how also be a depos­i­tory of social and cul­tural progress.

In other places, Marx describes the devel­op­ment of the bour­geoisie and pro­le­tariat in much the same terms, as if the classes belong together not only because of their places in pro­duc­tion, but also because of their mode of evo­lu­tion and the rela­tions they estab­lish between peo­ple. For exam­ple, he writes: “The diverse indi­vid­u­als only con­sti­tute a class when they sup­port a strug­gle against another class. The rest of the time, they con­front each other in com­pe­ti­tion. At the same time, the class becomes autonomous rel­a­tive to indi­vid­u­als, so that they find their pre­des­tined con­di­tions of exis­tence.”8 How­ever, when he con­cretely describes the evo­lu­tion of the pro­le­tariat and bour­geoisie he dif­fer­en­ti­ates them rad­i­cally. Essen­tially, the bour­geoisie com­pose a class because those who con­sti­tute it have a com­mon eco­nomic func­tion. Com­mon inter­ests and hori­zons describe their com­mon con­di­tions of exis­tence for them. Inde­pen­dently of the pol­i­tics each adopts, the bour­geoisie con­sti­tutes a homo­ge­neous group with a fixed struc­ture. Their com­mon­al­i­ties of inter­est explain the ease with which the class can develop a spe­cial­ized frac­tion to under­take its pol­i­tics. Bour­geois pol­i­tics are expres­sions and inter­pre­ta­tions of these shared dis­po­si­tions. This char­ac­ter­is­tic of the bour­geoisie is equally evi­dent in the process of its his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment: “Because they were in oppo­si­tion to exist­ing con­di­tions and the divi­sion of labor that resulted from them, the con­di­tions of exis­tence for iso­lated bour­geois became the con­di­tions com­mon to all of them.”9 In other words, the iden­tity of their eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion within feu­dal­ism uni­fied them and gave them a class aspect, impos­ing on them from the begin­ning a sim­ple asso­ci­a­tion by resem­blance. This is what Marx means by the expres­sion the run­away serfs were already half-bourgeois. There was no con­ti­nu­ity that linked serf and bour­geois. Rather, the lat­ter sim­ply legal­ized the former’s already-extant mode of life. As a group, the bour­geoisie insin­u­ated itself into feu­dal soci­ety, and its focus was broad­en­ing its own mode of pro­duc­tion. When this mode of pro­duc­tion encoun­tered the lim­its of the exist­ing con­di­tions, there was no con­tra­dic­tion; exist­ing con­di­tions merely impeded its devel­op­ment. Marx does not say, but enables one to say: From the begin­ning the bour­geoisie is what it will become, an exploit­ing class. Of course, it was ini­tially under­priv­i­leged, but it already con­tained within itself all the char­ac­ter­is­tics that its his­tory would sim­ply develop.

The devel­op­ment of the pro­le­tariat is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Reduced solely to its eco­nomic func­tion, it rep­re­sents a deter­mi­nate social cat­e­gory. But this cat­e­gory does not yet posses a class direc­tion. Its direc­tion [sens de classe] is con­sti­tuted by its orig­i­nal com­port­ment: the strug­gle against all forms of class in the soci­ety which it con­fronts as adver­sar­ial strata. This does not mean that the role of class in pro­duc­tion should be neglected; on the con­trary, we will see that the role work­ers play in soci­ety, and those they will be called upon to play in becom­ing its mas­ters, are directly rooted in their roles as pro­duc­ers. But the essen­tial point is that their role does not give them the abil­ity to act, but only an increas­ingly strong capac­ity to man­age. The bour­geoisie is con­tin­u­ally con­fronted with the results of its work: that is what gives it objec­tiv­ity. The pro­le­tariat is raised up through its work with­out ever being con­cerned with its results. Both the objects it pro­duces and the sequence of oper­a­tions required to pro­duce them are taken from it. While there is a progress in tech­ni­cal skill, this progress will only acquire a value in the future. In the present, it is inscribed in the neg­a­tive image of an exploita­tive soci­ety. (The tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties of the con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can pro­le­tariat have no com­mon mea­sure with that of the French pro­le­tariat of 1848, but both the for­mer and the lat­ter are equally with­out eco­nomic power.) It is true that work­ers, like the bour­geoisie, have sim­i­lar inter­ests imposed on them by their com­mon work­ing con­di­tions – for exam­ple, they have an inter­est in full employ­ment and higher wages. But these inter­ests are of a dif­fer­ent order than their most fun­da­men­tal inter­est, which is to not be work­ers. It appears that work­ers seek higher wages in the same way as bour­geois seek prof­its, just as it appears both offer com­modi­ties on the mar­ket – the lat­ter cap­i­tal, the for­mer labor-power. In fact, the bour­geoisie con­sti­tutes itself through this com­port­ment as author of its class: it builds the sys­tem of pro­duc­tion that is the source of its own social struc­ture. For its part, while the pro­le­tariat seems only to react to con­di­tions that are imposed on it, it is being matured by its exploiters. Even if the work­ers are points of depar­ture for rad­i­cal oppo­si­tion to the sys­tem of exploita­tion itself, they nonethe­less play an inte­gral part in the dialec­tic of cap­i­tal. In con­fronta­tion with the bour­geoisie, the pro­le­tariat only affirms itself as an autonomous class when it con­tests bour­geois power, which is to say its mode of pro­duc­tion, or, more con­cretely, exploita­tion itself. Its rev­o­lu­tion­ary atti­tude con­sti­tutes its class atti­tude. Pro­le­tar­ian class direc­tion is not devel­oped through an accu­mu­la­tion of eco­nomic attrib­utes, but rather through their rad­i­cal denial in order to insti­tute a new social order. From this fol­lows that the pro­le­tariat, unlike the bour­geoisie, can­not cast off their chains as indi­vid­u­als because the ful­fill­ment of their des­tiny can­not be located in what they already vir­tu­ally are, but only through the abo­li­tion of the pro­le­tar­ian con­di­tion itself.10 Marx notes that the bour­geoisie are only of their class as “mem­bers” or as “aver­age” indi­vid­u­als (that is, as pas­sively deter­mined by their eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion) while the work­ers, form­ing a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mu­nity,”11 are prop­erly indi­vid­u­als to the extent they dom­i­nate their sit­u­a­tion and imme­di­ate rela­tions to production.

If it is true that no class can ever be reduced solely to an eco­nomic func­tion and that a descrip­tion of con­crete social rela­tions within the bour­geoisie are a nec­es­sary com­po­nent of a com­pre­hen­sion of that class, then it is even more true that the pro­le­tariat requires a spe­cific approach that would enable access to its sub­jec­tive devel­op­ment. Despite some reser­va­tions con­cern­ing what is entailed by this term, it sum­ma­rizes bet­ter than any other the dom­i­nant trait of the pro­le­tariat. The pro­le­tariat is sub­jec­tive to the extent that its com­port­ments are not the sim­ple result of the con­di­tions of its exis­tence: its con­di­tions of exis­tence require of it a con­tin­u­ous strug­gle for trans­for­ma­tion, thus a con­tin­u­ous dis­tance from its imme­di­ate fate. The progress of this strug­gle, sense of dis­tance and the devel­op­ment of the ide­o­log­i­cal con­tent that enables them com­prise an expe­ri­ence across which the class con­sti­tutes itself.

To para­phrase Marx again, one must avoid above all fix­ing the rela­tion of the pro­le­tariat to the indi­vid­ual as an abstrac­tion. One must search for how its social struc­ture emerges from the sit­u­a­tions of deter­mi­nate indi­vid­u­als because it is true, accord­ing to Marx, that in soci­ety it is the pro­le­tariat which rep­re­sents a for­tiori an emi­nently social force within the present his­tor­i­cal stage as the group which pro­duces col­lec­tive life.

The indi­ca­tions that we find in Marx of an ori­en­ta­tion toward the con­crete analy­sis of the social rela­tions con­sti­tu­tive of the work­ing class have not been devel­oped by the Marx­ist move­ment. The fun­da­men­tal ques­tions for us have not been directly broached – how do men, placed in the con­di­tions of indus­trial work, come to appro­pri­ate that work? how do they build links between spe­cific rela­tions amongst them­selves, and how do they per­ceive and fash­ion rela­tions with the rest of soci­ety? and, in a sin­gu­lar man­ner, how do they com­pose the shared expe­ri­ence which makes of them a his­tor­i­cal force? For the most part they have been left aside in favor of a more abstract con­cep­tion, the object of which is, for exam­ple, cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety (con­sid­ered in its gen­er­al­ity). The forces which com­prise it are placed on the same level. So it was for Lenin, for whom the pro­le­tariat was an entity whose his­tor­i­cal mean­ing had been estab­lished once and for all and which was, with some excep­tions, treated as an adver­sary by virtue of its exter­nal char­ac­ter­is­tics. An exces­sive inter­est was accorded to the study of “forces of pro­duc­tion,” which were con­flated with class strug­gle itself, as if the essen­tial prob­lem were to mea­sure the pres­sure that one mass exerted on an oppos­ing mass. For us, this does not at all mean that we reject the objec­tive analy­sis of the struc­ture and insti­tu­tions of the social total­ity, nor do we imag­ine, for exam­ple, that the only true knowl­edge that can be given has to be elab­o­rated by the pro­le­tar­i­ans them­selves as a func­tion of their root­ed­ness in the class. This “work­erist” the­ory of knowl­edge which, it must be said in pass­ing, reduces the work of Marx to noth­ing, must be rejected for two rea­sons: first, because all knowl­edge claims objec­tiv­ity (even as it may be con­scious of being socially and psy­cho­log­i­cally con­di­tioned); sec­ond, because the aspi­ra­tion to prac­ti­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal uni­ver­sal­ity belongs to the very nature of the pro­le­tariat, which would iden­tify itself with soci­ety as a whole. But the fact remains that objec­tive analy­sis, even car­ried out with the great­est rigor, as it was done in Marx’s Cap­i­tal, remains incom­plete because it is con­strained to be only inter­ested in the results of social life or in the fixed forms into which it is inte­grated (for exam­ple tech­ni­cal devel­op­ment or the con­cen­tra­tion of cap­i­tal) and to ignore the human expe­ri­ence that cor­re­sponds to more or less exter­nal mate­r­ial processes (for exam­ple, the rela­tions of men to their work in the steam age or the age of elec­tric­ity, in the age of com­pet­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism and in that of state monop­oly cap­i­tal­ism). In a sense there is no way to sep­a­rate mate­r­ial forms and human expe­ri­ence because the for­mer is deter­mined by the con­di­tions in which they are made, and these con­di­tions, which are the result of social evo­lu­tion, are the work of human beings. But from a prac­ti­cal view­point, objec­tive analy­sis is sub­or­di­nated to con­crete analy­sis because it is not con­di­tions that are rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but human beings, and the ulti­mate ques­tion is how to know about the ways that human beings appro­pri­ate and trans­form their situation.

The urgency of and inter­est in con­crete analy­sis comes from another direc­tion as well. Hold­ing close to Marx, we have under­lined the role of pro­duc­ers in the social lives of work­ers. It must be said, how­ever, that the same could be said in a gen­eral way of any class that has played any role in the his­tory of work. But the role of the pro­le­tariat in pro­duc­tion is unlike that of any other class from the past. Its role is spe­cific to mod­ern indus­trial soci­ety and can only be indi­rectly com­pared with other social forms which have pre­ceded it. The idea fash­ion­able today amongst many soci­ol­o­gists, for exam­ple, that the most archaic forms of prim­i­tive soci­eties are closer to feu­dal Europe of the Mid­dle Ages than the lat­ter is to the cap­i­tal­ism to which it gave way, does not pay ade­quate atten­tion to the role of classes and their rela­tions. There is a dou­ble rela­tion in any soci­ety, one amongst men and another between men and the objects they trans­form, but with indus­trial soci­ety the sec­ond rela­tion took on a new sig­nif­i­cance. Now there is a sphere of indus­trial pro­duc­tion gov­erned by laws that are to a cer­tain extent autonomous. Of course they are sit­u­ated in a total social sphere because the rela­tions between classes are con­sti­tuted through the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, but not strictly so because the tech­ni­cal devel­op­ments and processes of ratio­nal­iza­tion which have been char­ac­ter­is­tic of cap­i­tal­ism since its ori­gins have had impacts that go beyond class strug­gle. To take a banal exam­ple, the indus­trial usage of steam or elec­tric­ity entail a series of con­se­quences – on the divi­sion of labor, on the dis­tri­b­u­tion of firms – that are rel­a­tively inde­pen­dent of the gen­eral form of social rela­tions. Of course, ratio­nal­iza­tion and tech­ni­cal devel­op­ment are not real­i­ties in them­selves: there is so lit­tle to them that they can be inter­preted as defenses erected by cap­i­tal­ists whose prof­its are con­tin­u­ously threat­ened by pro­le­tar­ian resis­tance of exploita­tion. Nonethe­less, even if the moti­va­tions of Cap­i­tal are suf­fi­cient to explain these ori­gins, they still can­not account for the con­tent of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment. The deeper expla­na­tion for the appar­ent auton­omy in the logic of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment is that it is not the work of cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment alone: it is also an expres­sion of pro­le­tar­ian work. The action of the pro­le­tariat, in fact, does not only take the form of a resis­tance (forc­ing employ­ers to con­stantly improve their meth­ods of oper­a­tion), but also of con­tin­u­ous assim­i­la­tion of progress, and even more, active col­lab­o­ra­tion in it. It is because work­ers are able to adapt to the rhythm and form of con­tin­u­ous evo­lu­tion that this evo­lu­tion has been able to occur. More basi­cally, because work­ers carry within them­selves responses to the myr­iad prob­lems posed within pro­duc­tion in its detail they make pos­si­ble the appear­ance of the sys­tem­atic response that one calls tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion. Explicit ratio­nal­iza­tion is the gath­er­ing, inter­pre­ta­tion, and inte­gra­tion from a class per­spec­tive of the mul­ti­ple, dis­persed, frag­mented, and anony­mous inno­va­tions of men engaged in the con­crete processes of production.

From our view­point, this last remark is fun­da­men­tal because it places the empha­sis on expe­ri­ence that unfolds at the point of pro­duc­tion and on the per­cep­tions of work­ers. This does not entail a sep­a­ra­tion of this par­tic­u­lar social rela­tion from those of the global soci­ety that shape it, but rather recog­ni­tion of its speci­ficity. In other words, if we say that indus­trial struc­ture deter­mines social struc­ture, which is the means by which it acquires per­ma­nence, so that any soci­ety – regard­less of the class char­ac­ter­is­tics – mod­els itself on cer­tain of its char­ac­ter­is­tics, then we must under­stand the sit­u­a­tion into which it places those who are inte­grated out of neces­sity – that is, the sit­u­a­tion of the proletariat.

So what is a con­crete analy­sis of the pro­le­tariat? We will try to define it by enu­mer­at­ing some pos­si­bil­i­ties and deter­min­ing their respec­tive interests.

The first approach would be to describe the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion in which the class finds itself and the influ­ences that sit­u­a­tion has on its struc­ture. At the limit, it would require a total social and eco­nomic analy­sis. In a more restricted sense, we would want to talk about work­ing con­di­tions and those of the lives of work­ers, the mod­i­fi­ca­tions that have accom­pa­nied its con­cen­tra­tion and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, changes in meth­ods of exploita­tion (inten­sity of work, length of the work day, wages and labor mar­kets and so forth). This is the most objec­tive approach in that it is focused on the appar­ent (but nonethe­less essen­tial) class char­ac­ter­is­tics. Any social group can be stud­ied in this way, and any­one can devote a study to it inde­pen­dently of any rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mit­ments what­so­ever.12 There is noth­ing specif­i­cally pro­le­tar­ian about such work, even as one can say that it is or would be inspired by polit­i­cal forms opposed to the inter­ests of the exploit­ing class.

A sec­ond approach, the inverse of the first, would typ­i­cally be labeled more sub­jec­tive. It would focus on all expres­sions of pro­le­tar­ian con­scious­ness, or on what one ordi­nar­ily refers to as ide­ol­ogy. For exam­ple, prim­i­tive Marx­ism, anar­chism, reformism, Bol­she­vism, and Stal­in­ism rep­re­sent stages in the devel­op­ment of pro­le­tar­ian con­scious­ness. It is impor­tant to under­stand the mean­ing of their suc­ces­sion, to under­stand why large num­bers of work­ers have ral­lied around them at dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal stages and why these forms con­tinue to sig­nify in the present con­text. In other words, it is impor­tant to under­stand what the pro­le­tariat is try­ing to say by way of these inter­me­di­aries. While we make no claim for its orig­i­nal­ity – many exam­ples can be found in Marx­ist lit­er­a­ture (in Lenin’s cri­tiques of anar­chism or reformism, for exam­ple) – this type of analy­sis could be taken quite far: the con­tem­po­rary decline enables an appre­ci­a­tion of the trans­for­ma­tions of doc­trines despite the super­fi­cial appear­ances of con­ti­nu­ities (that of Stal­in­ism from 1928-1952 or that of reformism over the past cen­tury). How­ever, what­ever its inter­est, this approach remains abstract and incom­plete. It remains exter­nal, using infor­ma­tion that can be gath­ered through pub­li­ca­tions (the pro­grams and larger state­ments of the move­ment in which one might be inter­ested) that do not nec­es­sar­ily impose a pro­le­tar­ian view­point. And it allows what is arguably most fun­da­men­tal about worker expe­ri­ence to escape. It is only con­cerned with explicit expe­ri­ence, in what is expressed and put into the form of pro­grams or arti­cles with­out being pre­oc­cu­pied with whether or how these ideas reflect the thoughts and inten­tions of the work­ers in whose name they speak. While there is always a gap that sep­a­rates what is expe­ri­enced from what is elab­o­rated, it acquires a par­tic­u­lar ampli­fi­ca­tion in the case of the pro­le­tariat. This ampli­fi­ca­tion fol­lows from the fact that the work­ing class is not only dom­i­nated, but is also alien­ated, totally excluded from eco­nomic power and by virtue of that excluded from being able to rep­re­sent any sta­tus at all. This does not mean that ide­olo­gies have no rela­tion to the class expe­ri­ence of work­ing peo­ple, but the trans­for­ma­tion into a sys­tem of thought pre­sup­poses a break with and antic­i­pa­tion of that expe­ri­ence which allows non-proletarian fac­tors to exer­cise their influ­ence and make the rela­tion indi­rect. Here we encounter once again the basic dif­fer­ence between the pro­le­tariat and bour­geoisie noted ear­lier. For the lat­ter, the the­ory of lib­er­al­ism of a given period is a sim­ple ide­al­iza­tion and/or ratio­nal­iza­tion of its inter­ests: the pro­grams of its polit­i­cal par­ties express the sta­tus of cer­tain strata of their orga­ni­za­tions. For the pro­le­tariat, Bol­she­vism, although to some extent a ratio­nal­iza­tion of the worker’s con­di­tion, was also an inter­pre­ta­tion of it elab­o­rated by a frac­tion of the worker avant-garde13 asso­ci­ated with an intel­li­gentsia that was rel­a­tively sep­a­rated from the class. In other words, there are two rea­sons for the defor­ma­tion of worker expres­sion: that it is the work of a minor­ity exter­nal to the real life of the work­ing class or which is con­strained to adopt a rela­tion of exte­ri­or­ity to it; and that it is utopian, not in a pejo­ra­tive sense, but in the sense that it is a project that would estab­lish a sit­u­a­tion all the premises of which are not given in the present. Of course, the var­i­ous ide­olo­gies of the work­ers’ move­ment rep­re­sent cer­tain kinds of rela­tions to work­ers, which the work­ers rec­og­nize as their own, but only rep­re­sent them in a deriv­a­tive form.

A third approach would be more specif­i­cally his­tor­i­cal. It would con­sist in research into a con­ti­nu­ity link­ing the great man­i­fes­ta­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment since it came into being, to demon­strate that rev­o­lu­tions and, more gen­er­ally, diverse forms of worker resis­tance and orga­ni­za­tion (asso­ci­a­tions, unions, polit­i­cal par­ties, com­mit­tees formed dur­ing strikes or in the con­text of par­tic­u­lar con­flicts) are part of a pro­gres­sive expe­ri­ence and to show how this expe­ri­ence is linked to the evo­lu­tion of eco­nomic and polit­i­cal forms within cap­i­tal­ist society.

Finally there is a fourth approach, one that we see as the most con­crete. Rather than exam­in­ing the sit­u­a­tion of the pro­le­tariat from the out­side, this approach seeks to recon­struct the proletariat’s rela­tions to its work and to soci­ety from the inside and show how its capac­i­ties for inven­tion and power of orga­ni­za­tion man­i­fest in every­day life.

Prior to any explicit reflec­tion, to any inter­pre­ta­tion of their lot or their role, work­ers have spon­ta­neous com­port­ments with respect to indus­trial work, exploita­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion of pro­duc­tion, and social life both inside and out­side the fac­tory. By any account, this is the com­port­ment that most com­pletely man­i­fests in their per­son­al­i­ties. At this level, the dis­tinc­tion between sub­jec­tive and objec­tive loses its mean­ing: this com­port­ment includes ide­olo­gies which it con­sti­tutes with a cer­tain degree of ratio­nal­iza­tion, just as it pre­sup­poses eco­nomic con­di­tions. This com­port­ment per­forms their ongo­ing inte­gra­tion and elaboration.

As we have said, such an approach has yet to be really explored. No doubt there are valu­able lessons in the analy­sis of the 19th cen­tury Eng­lish work­ing class from Cap­i­tal; how­ever, to the extent that Marx’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion was to describe the work­ing con­di­tions and lives of work­ers, he oper­ated within the first approach out­lined ear­lier. Since Marx, there are only “lit­er­ary” doc­u­ments attempt­ing to describe the worker per­son­al­ity. Over the past few years and pri­mar­ily from the United States, a “worker” soci­ol­ogy has appeared that claims to do con­crete analy­ses of social rela­tions within pro­duc­tion and to iso­late their prac­ti­cal inten­tions. This soci­ol­ogy is the work of man­age­ment. “Enlight­ened” cap­i­tal­ists dis­cov­ered that mate­r­ial ratio­nal­iza­tion had its lim­its, that human-objects had spe­cific reac­tions one had to account for if one wanted to get the most out of them – that is, to get them to sub­mit to the most effi­cient forms of exploita­tion. This admirable dis­cov­ery pressed into ser­vice a Tay­lorized form of human­ism and made lots of money both for pseudo-psychoanalysts, who were called upon to lib­er­ate work­ers from their resent­ment as a harm­ful obsta­cle to pro­duc­tiv­ity, and for pseudo-sociologists, who car­ried out stud­ies of worker atti­tudes toward their work and their com­rades in order to help imple­ment the newest notions of social adap­ta­tion. The mis­for­tune of this soci­ol­ogy is that it can­not get to the pro­le­tar­ian per­son­al­ity by def­i­n­i­tion and is con­demned to remain out­side by virtue of its class per­spec­tive, see­ing noth­ing but the per­son­al­ity of the pro­duc­ing worker, a sim­ple exe­cu­tant irre­ducibly linked to the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem of exploita­tion. The con­cepts used in these analy­ses, like social adap­ta­tion, have for work­ers a mean­ing oppo­site to that of the researchers (for the lat­ter, there can only be adap­ta­tion to exist­ing con­di­tions: for work­ers, adap­ta­tion implies a lack of adap­ta­tion for exploita­tion). The results gen­er­ated are worth­less. This fail­ure shows the pre­sup­po­si­tions that would shape a real con­crete analy­sis of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. It is fun­da­men­tal that the work be rec­og­nized by work­ers as a moment of their own expe­ri­ence, an oppor­tu­nity to for­mal­ize, con­dense and con­front types of knowl­edge usu­ally implicit, more “felt” than thought, and frag­men­tary. The dis­tance that sep­a­rates a soci­ol­ogy shaped by rev­o­lu­tion­ary aspi­ra­tions from the indus­trial soci­ol­ogy we have referred to is that which sep­a­rates the work of time-motion men from the col­lec­tive deter­mi­na­tion of pro­duc­tion norms in the con­text of worker man­age­ment. To the work­ers, an indus­trial soci­ol­o­gist looks like a time-motion man try­ing to mea­sure his “psy­cho­log­i­cal dura­tions” and the coop­er­a­tive dimen­sions of his social adap­ta­tion. In con­trast, what we are propos­ing pre­sup­poses that the work­ers are engaged in a pro­gres­sive expe­ri­ence that would tend to explode the frame­work of exploita­tion itself. The work would only be mean­ing­ful for those who par­tic­i­pate in that expe­ri­ence them­selves. Chief amongst those peo­ple are the workers.

In this respect, the rad­i­cal orig­i­nal­ity of the pro­le­tariat emerges once again. This class can only be known by itself, on the con­di­tion that whomever inquires about it acknowl­edges the value of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, ori­ents him­self through their sit­u­a­tion and makes his own their social and his­tor­i­cal class hori­zons, and on the con­di­tion that he breaks with the imme­di­ately given, that is, with the frame­work of exploita­tion. This sort of work could go quite oth­er­wise with any other social group. Amer­i­can researchers have stud­ied with con­sid­er­able suc­cess the Mid­west petite bour­geoisie as if they were study­ing the Papou on the island of Alor. What­ever com­plex­i­ties were encoun­tered (we are still dis­cussing the rela­tion of an observer to what is being stud­ied) along with the neces­sity for the ana­lyst to go beyond the sim­ple analy­sis of insti­tu­tions in order to con­sti­tute some­thing of the mean­ings they have for con­crete human beings, it is nonethe­less pos­si­ble to acquire a cer­tain under­stand­ing of the group being stud­ied with­out shar­ing their norms and accept­ing their val­ues. This is because the petit bour­geois, like the Papous, have an objec­tive social exis­tence which, for bet­ter or worse, tends to per­pet­u­ate itself in the same form, one which is solidly linked to con­di­tions in the present. As we have empha­sized through­out, the pro­le­tariat is only defined in appear­ance by its con­di­tion as the col­lec­tiv­ity of exe­cu­tants within cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. Its actual social life is hid­den: it is at once sym­met­ri­cal with exist­ing con­di­tions and in stark con­tra­dic­tion to the sys­tem that deter­mines those con­di­tions (the sys­tem of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion itself). This opens onto a role that is dif­fer­ent from that which con­tem­po­rary soci­ety imposes on it at every point.

The con­crete approach that we see as required by the very nature of the pro­le­tariat entails that we col­lect and inter­pret tes­ti­monies writ­ten by work­ers. By tes­ti­monies we mean espe­cially nar­ra­tives that recount indi­vid­ual lives, or, bet­ter, expe­ri­ences in con­tem­po­rary indus­try, made by the inter­ested par­ties that can pro­vide insights into their social lives. Let us indi­cate some of the ques­tions that we think are the most inter­est­ing that can be posed by read­ing these tes­ti­monies, ques­tions which have been shaped in sig­nif­i­cant mea­sure by doc­u­ments that already exist14:

We would like to know about a) the rela­tions of a worker to his work – his func­tion within the fac­tory, level of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, and under­stand­ing of the pro­duc­tion process. For exam­ple, does he know where the piece comes from that he works on? His pro­fes­sional expe­ri­ence – has he worked in other fac­to­ries, in other branches of indus­trial pro­duc­tion, etc.? His inter­est in pro­duc­tion – what types of ini­tia­tive can he bring to his work, is he curi­ous about tech­ni­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments? Does he have a spon­ta­neous sense of the trans­for­ma­tions that could be brought to the struc­ture of pro­duc­tion and rhythms of work, to the con­text and con­di­tions that shape life in the fac­tory? Does he have in gen­eral a crit­i­cal atti­tude toward man­age­r­ial efforts at ratio­nal­iza­tion? How does he wel­come attempts at modernization?

b) Rela­tions with other work­ers and ele­ments from dif­fer­ent social strata within the enter­prise (dif­fer­ences in atti­tudes toward other work­ers, toward fore­men, man­agers, engi­neers and exec­u­tives), and under­stand­ing of the divi­sion of labor. What do hier­ar­chies of func­tion and wage rep­re­sent? Would he pre­fer to do some of his work at a machine and some in an office? How does he accom­mo­date his role as sim­ple exe­cu­tant? Does he under­stand the social struc­ture in the fac­tory as nec­es­sary or at least as some­thing that “goes with­out say­ing”? Are there ten­den­cies toward co-operation, com­pe­ti­tion or iso­la­tion? Pref­er­ence for work­ing as an indi­vid­ual or in a team? How are rela­tions amongst indi­vid­u­als divided up? Per­sonal rela­tions, the for­ma­tion of small groups and the basis on which they are estab­lished? How impor­tant are these small groups for indi­vid­u­als? If these are dif­fer­ent from social rela­tions that take shape in offices, how are these per­ceived and eval­u­ated? What impor­tance does he attribute to the social phys­iog­nomy of the fac­tory? Does he know about other fac­to­ries and how does he com­pare them? Does he have exact knowl­edge of the wage lev­els attached to other func­tions through­out the enter­prise? Does he com­pare pay stubs with other work­ers? Etc.

c) Life out­side the fac­tory and knowl­edge about what is hap­pen­ing in the wider social world. Impact of life inside the fac­tory on life out­side of it – how his work mate­ri­ally and psy­cho­log­i­cally influ­ences his per­sonal and fam­ily life, for exam­ple? Which milieu does he fre­quent out­side the fac­tory? To what extent are these pat­terns imposed on him by his work, or by the neigh­bor­hood in which he lives? What are the char­ac­ter­is­tics of his fam­ily life, rela­tions with his chil­dren and how he edu­cates them, his extra-professional activ­i­ties? How does he occupy his leisure time? Does he have predilec­tions for par­tic­u­lar types of dis­trac­tion? To what extent does he use mass media: books, news­pa­pers, radio, cin­ema? What are his atti­tudes about them? What are his tastes… not merely what news­pa­per does he read, but what does he read first? What inter­ests him (accounts of polit­i­cal or social events, tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments, bour­geois scan­dals)? Etc.

d) Links to prop­erly pro­le­tar­ian his­tory and tra­di­tions: knowl­edge of the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment and famil­iar­ity with it; par­tic­i­pa­tion in par­tic­u­lar social or polit­i­cal strug­gles and the mem­o­ries they have left with him; knowl­edge of work­ers in other coun­tries; atti­tudes toward the future inde­pen­dently of any par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal esti­ma­tion, etc.

What­ever the inter­est of these ques­tions, it is nonethe­less impor­tant to ask about the weight attrib­uted to indi­vid­ual tes­ti­monies. We know that we will be able to gather a rel­a­tively lim­ited num­ber of texts: on what basis can one gen­er­al­ize from them? A tes­ti­mony is by def­i­n­i­tion par­tic­u­lar: that of a 20- or 50-year-old worker who works in a small plant or large facil­ity, a devel­oped mil­i­tant, some­one with exten­sive trade-union and polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence, one with rigid opin­ions with­out ben­e­fit of any par­tic­u­lar train­ing or expe­ri­ence in par­tic­u­lar… with­out resort­ing to arti­fice, how can one dis­count these dif­fer­ences of sit­u­a­tion and derive from such dif­fer­ently moti­vated nar­ra­tives lessons of uni­ver­sal import? On this point, cri­tique is largely jus­ti­fied, and it seems clear that the results it would be pos­si­ble to obtain would nec­es­sar­ily be lim­ited. At the same time, it would be equally arti­fi­cial to deny all value to these texts. First, no mat­ter how sig­nif­i­cant the dif­fer­ences amongst them, all these texts are sit­u­ated within a sin­gle frame: the sit­u­a­tion of the pro­le­tariat. This allows us to see much more than the speci­ficity of a par­tic­u­lar life in the read­ing of these texts. Two work­ers in very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions have in com­mon that both have endured one or another form of work and exploita­tion that is essen­tially the same and absorbs three-quarters of their per­sonal exis­tence. Their wages might be very dif­fer­ent, their liv­ing sit­u­a­tions and fam­ily lives may not be com­pa­ra­ble, but it remains the case that they are pro­foundly iden­ti­cal both in their roles as pro­duc­ers or machine oper­a­tors, and in their alien­ation. Every worker knows this: it is what enables that sense of famil­iar­ity and com­plic­ity (even when the indi­vid­u­als do not know each other) which is evi­dent at a glance for a bour­geois who finds him­self in a working-class neigh­bor­hood. It is not absurd to look amongst these par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics for those with a more gen­eral sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, given that they all have resem­blances which are suf­fi­cient to dis­tin­guish them from those of any other social group. To this it must be added that this approach to tes­ti­monies would be sus­cep­ti­ble to cri­tique if we were inter­ested in gath­er­ing and cor­re­lat­ing opin­ions because these would nec­es­sar­ily be of a great diver­sity – but as we have said, we are inter­ested in worker atti­tudes. These atti­tudes are some­times expressed in the form of opin­ions, and are often dis­fig­ured by them, but they are in every case deeper and more sim­ple. This would present a con­sid­er­able obsta­cle were we to try to use a lim­ited num­ber of texts to infer the pro­le­tar­ian view of the USSR or of wage hier­ar­chies in gen­eral. But it is a much sim­pler mat­ter to iso­late worker atti­tudes toward bureau­cracy spon­ta­neously devel­oped from inside the pro­duc­tion process. Finally, we should note that no other mode of knowl­edge would allow us to respond to the prob­lems we have posed. Even if we had avail­able the mate­ri­als required for a vast statistically-based inves­ti­ga­tion (the data for which would be gath­ered by numer­ous com­rades who would pose thou­sands of ques­tions to other work­ers in var­i­ous fac­to­ries, given that we have already excluded any inves­ti­ga­tion car­ried out by researchers from out­side the work­ing class), the results would be use­less, because results based on responses gath­ered from anony­mous respon­dents that could only be cor­re­lated numer­i­cally would be with­out inter­est. Only responses attrib­uted to con­crete indi­vid­u­als can be brought into rela­tion with each other; their con­ver­gences and diver­gences enable the iso­la­tion of mean­ing and invoke sys­tems of liv­ing and think­ing that can be inter­preted. For all these rea­sons, indi­vid­ual nar­ra­tives are invaluable.

This does not mean that we would use this approach to define what the pro­le­tariat is in its real­ity after hav­ing rejected all rep­re­sen­ta­tions that have been made of its sit­u­a­tion as per­ceived through the dis­tort­ing prism of bour­geois soci­ety or the polit­i­cal par­ties that pur­port to speak in its name. A worker tes­ti­mony, no mat­ter how evoca­tive, sym­bolic or spon­ta­neous it may be, remains con­di­tioned by the sit­u­a­tion of its author. We are not refer­ring here to the defor­ma­tions that can arise in the par­tic­u­lar inter­pre­ta­tions given by an author, but rather to those which tes­ti­mony nec­es­sar­ily imposes on the author. To tell a story is not to act within it. Telling a story even entails a break with action in ways that trans­form its mean­ing. For exam­ple, writ­ing an account of a strike is not the same as par­tic­i­pat­ing in that strike sim­ply because as a par­tic­i­pant, one does not yet know the out­come of one’s actions, and the dis­tance entailed by reflec­tion allows for judg­ments about that which, in real time, is not fixed as to mean­ing. In fact, there is in this case some­thing much more than a sep­a­ra­tion of opin­ion: there is a change of atti­tude, that is, a trans­for­ma­tion in the mode of react­ing to sit­u­a­tions in which one finds one­self. In addi­tion, a nar­ra­tive puts the indi­vid­ual in an unnat­u­rally iso­lated posi­tion. Work­ers typ­i­cally act out of sol­i­dar­ity with the other peo­ple who are caught up in the same sit­u­a­tion; with­out even talk­ing about open social strug­gles, there is the ongo­ing every­day strug­gle within the pro­duc­tion process to resist exploita­tion, a strug­gle hid­den but con­tin­u­ous and shared amongst com­rades. The atti­tudes most char­ac­ter­is­tic of a worker toward his work or toward other social strata are not found in him, as would be the case with the bour­geois or the bureau­crat who see their own actions deter­mined by their indi­vid­ual inter­ests. Rather, the worker shares in col­lec­tive responses. The cri­tique of a worker nar­ra­tive must make vis­i­ble within indi­vid­ual responses that aspect which leans on col­lec­tive com­port­ments; how­ever, in the final analy­sis, these reg­is­ters do not entirely over­lap in a nar­ra­tive, with the result that we can only derive an incom­plete knowl­edge from them. To fin­ish – and this cri­tique con­nects back to the first at a deeper level – the his­tor­i­cal con­text in which these nar­ra­tives are pub­lished must be clar­i­fied. There is no eter­nal pro­le­tariat that speaks, but a cer­tain type of worker who occu­pies a def­i­nite his­tor­i­cal posi­tion, sit­u­ated in a time char­ac­ter­ized by a sig­nif­i­cant retreat of worker forces all over the world as the strug­gle between two types of exploita­tive soci­ety lit­tle by lit­tle reduces to silence all other social man­i­fes­ta­tions, as a func­tion of its ten­dency to develop into both an overt con­flict and a bureau­cratic uni­fi­ca­tion of the world. The atti­tude of the pro­le­tariat (even the atti­tude that we are search­ing for which tran­scends to some extent this par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture) is not the same in a period in which the class works with an antic­i­pa­tion of eman­ci­pa­tion in the short term, on the one hand, and one in which it is con­demned to momen­tary con­tem­pla­tion of blocked hori­zons and to main­tain a his­tor­i­cal silence, on the other.

It is enough to say that the approach that we char­ac­ter­ize as con­crete remains abstract in many respects given that the three aspects of the pro­le­tariat (prac­ti­cal, col­lec­tive, his­tor­i­cal) only emerge indi­rectly and are thereby deformed. In fact, the con­crete pro­le­tariat is not an object of knowl­edge: it works, it strug­gles and it trans­forms itself. One can­not catch up with it at the level of the­ory, but only at the level of prac­tice by par­tic­i­pat­ing in its his­tory. But this last remark is abstract because it does not take into account the role of knowl­edge in his­tory itself, as a mode of inte­gra­tion along with work and strug­gle. It is a fact as man­i­fest as oth­ers that work­ers pose ques­tions about their con­di­tion and the pos­si­bil­i­ties for trans­form­ing it. One can only mul­ti­ply the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tives, which are nec­es­sar­ily abstract, even at moments of their con­ver­gence, and pos­tu­late that progress in the clar­i­fi­ca­tion of worker expe­ri­ence will advance that expe­ri­ence. So it is not by way of a stan­dard for­mula that we say that the four approaches we crit­i­cized in suc­ces­sion are in fact com­ple­men­tary. This is not to say that their results can be use­fully added together, but rather that their con­ver­gence across dif­fer­ent paths com­mu­ni­cates, in a more or less com­pre­hen­sive man­ner, the same real­ity that we have called pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, for lack of a bet­ter term. For exam­ple, we think that the cri­tique of the evo­lu­tion of the work­ers’ move­ment, of its forms of orga­ni­za­tion and strug­gle, the cri­tique of ide­olo­gies, and the descrip­tion of worker atti­tudes nec­es­sar­ily all con­firm one another. Because the posi­tions that expressed them­selves in sys­tem­atic and ratio­nal ways in the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment and the orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments that have fol­lowed one another all coex­ist, in a sense, as the inter­pre­ta­tions and pos­si­ble accom­plish­ments of the pro­le­tariat today. Beneath (so to speak) the reformist, anar­chist, or Stal­in­ist move­ments, there is a pro­jec­tion amongst the work­ers, pro­ceed­ing directly from the rela­tion to pro­duc­tion, a pro­jec­tion con­cern­ing their fate which makes these elab­o­ra­tions pos­si­ble and con­tains them at the same time. There is a sim­i­lar rela­tion to forms of strug­gle that seem to be asso­ci­ated with phases of worker his­tory (1848, 1870 or 1917) but which express types of rela­tions between work­ers that con­tinue to exist and even to man­i­fest them­selves (in the form of a wild­cat strike with­out any orga­ni­za­tion, for exam­ple). This is not to say that the pro­le­tariat con­tains by its nature all the moments of its his­tory and all pos­si­ble ide­o­log­i­cal expres­sions of its con­di­tion. Fol­low­ing on what we have been say­ing, the mate­r­ial and the­o­ret­i­cal evo­lu­tion of the pro­le­tariat has led it to be as it is and the ways in which the past has come to be con­densed in its com­port­ment today have opened whole new fields of pos­si­bil­i­ties and reflec­tions. In ana­lyz­ing worker atti­tudes, what is essen­tial is not to lose sight of the fact that the knowl­edge obtained through it is lim­ited and that, more pro­foundly and com­pre­hen­sively than is the case with other forms of knowl­edge, while this does not under­mine its valid­ity, it must be con­nected back with the work­ers or risk becom­ing unintelligible.

Now that we have enu­mer­ated a series of ques­tions that con­crete analy­sis should enable us to answer or to pose bet­ter, we will turn to how con­crete analy­sis might reor­ga­nize and con­tribute to a deep­en­ing of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory, after first for­mu­lat­ing some reser­va­tions. The fol­low­ing seem to us the main prob­lems: (1) Under what form does the worker appro­pri­ate social life? (2) How does the worker inte­grate him­self into his class? That is, what are the rela­tions that unify peo­ple who share this con­di­tion and to what extent do these rela­tions con­sti­tute a delim­ited and sta­ble com­mu­nity in soci­ety? (3) What are his per­cep­tions of other social strata, his com­mu­ni­ca­tion with soci­ety glob­ally, his sen­si­tiv­ity to insti­tu­tions and to events that do not directly con­cern him or his every­day life? (4) In what ways does he sub­mit mate­ri­ally and ide­o­log­i­cally to the pres­sures brought by the dom­i­nant class and what are his ten­den­cies to escape from his own class? (5) Finally, what is his aware­ness of the his­tory of the work­ers’ move­ment? To what extent does he feel inte­grated with the past of the class and what are his capac­i­ties to act with a sense of class tradition?

How could these prob­lems be broached and what would be the inter­est in doing so? Take for exam­ple the appro­pri­a­tion of social life. The ini­tial approach would be to detail the skills and tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties of the worker: there is no doubt about the need for infor­ma­tion that directly con­cerns his pro­fes­sional apti­tudes. But research should also be done into how tech­ni­cal curios­ity appears out­side of the work­place, in leisure activ­i­ties ( in all the forms of brico­lage, or in the inter­est accorded to sci­en­tific and tech­ni­cal pub­li­ca­tions, for exam­ple) and should clar­ify the under­stand­ings of tech­nol­ogy and the indus­trial orga­ni­za­tion of work that the worker has, as well as his aware­ness of every­thing that touches the admin­is­tra­tion of things more gen­er­ally. With­out los­ing inter­est in an eval­u­a­tion of the cul­tural level of the worker (in the nar­row sense that the bour­geoisie typ­i­cally gives the term – extent of lit­er­ary, sci­en­tific and artis­tic knowl­edge), one would describe the field of infor­ma­tion to which he is open: news­pa­pers, radio, cin­ema. At the same time, we would want to know whether the pro­le­tar­ian has a spe­cific way of envi­sion­ing events and out­comes and which inter­est him (whether he hears about them in the course of every­day life or reads about them in a news­pa­per, whether these are of a polit­i­cal order or, as the expres­sion goes, enter­tain­ments). The essen­tial would be to deter­mine whether there is a class men­tal­ité and how it dif­fers from a bour­geois mentalité.

We merely pro­vide some indi­ca­tions on this point: devel­op­ing them here would run us ahead of the tes­ti­monies them­selves, and these texts allow not only for an inter­pre­ta­tion but also the recon­sid­er­a­tion of the extent and order of the ques­tions involved in our approach to research. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary inter­est of such research is evi­dent. In short, this would be a way to know whether the pro­le­tariat has or has not sub­mit­ted to the cul­tural dom­i­na­tion of the bour­geoisie and whether its alien­ation has robbed it of an orig­i­nal per­spec­tive on soci­ety. The answer to this ques­tion could either enable one to con­clude that any rev­o­lu­tion is doomed to fail­ure because the over­throw of the State would only bring back a cul­tural hodge­podge of the pre­vi­ous soci­ety, or it could allow one to per­ceive the direc­tion in which a new cul­ture may develop in the scat­tered and often uncon­scious ele­ments that already exist.

Again, we must empha­size, against the all too pre­dictable accu­sa­tions of bad faith, that this inquiry into the social life of the pro­le­tariat will not study the class from the out­side and will not reveal its nature to those who do not know it. It is a response to a series of ques­tions posed explic­itly by the worker avant-garde and implic­itly by the work­ing class more gen­er­ally in a sit­u­a­tion where a series of rev­o­lu­tion­ary defeats and the dom­i­na­tion of a worker bureau­cracy have under­mined the con­fi­dence of the pro­le­tariat in its capac­i­ties for cre­ativ­ity and in its own eman­ci­pa­tion. Still dom­i­nated by the bour­geoisie on this point, work­ers do not believe that they have any knowl­edge of their own. They see them­selves as the pari­ahs of bour­geois culture.

In fact, their cre­ativ­ity is such that there is no need for it to show itself accord­ing to bour­geois norms; their cul­ture does not exist as an order sep­a­rated from their social lives, it does not take the form of the pro­duc­tion of ideas. Pro­le­tar­ian cul­ture exists as a cer­tain power in the orga­ni­za­tion of things and an adap­ta­tion to progress, as a cer­tain under­stand­ing of human rela­tions, a dis­po­si­tion toward social com­mu­nity. As indi­vid­u­als, work­ers have only a con­fused sense of this: because it is impos­si­ble for them to give their cul­ture objec­tive con­tent in a soci­ety based on exploita­tion, they have come to doubt it and to believe in the real­ity of bour­geois cul­ture alone.

Let’s take a sec­ond exam­ple: how to describe the inte­gra­tion of the pro­le­tar­ian into the class? In this case, the ques­tion is know­ing how, within the fac­tory, the worker per­ceives those who share his work, as well as the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all other social strata; of know­ing the nature and mean­ing of the rela­tions he has with his cowork­ers; whether he has dif­fer­ent atti­tudes toward work­ers of dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sional grades (Pro­fes­sional, O.S., or semi-skilled, and manoeu­vre, or unskilled); whether these rela­tions of cama­raderie extend beyond the fac­tory; whether he tends to seek out work that require coop­er­a­tion. If he has always worked in a fac­tory, in what sit­u­a­tion he began to do so; whether he has con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of doing some­thing dif­fer­ent or whether the chance has ever pre­sented itself to change trades? It would be good to know whether he fre­quents milieus that are not working-class and what he thinks of them, in par­tic­u­lar whether he has inter­ac­tions with the peas­ant milieu and how he eval­u­ates it. It would be nec­es­sary to jux­ta­pose this infor­ma­tion with responses con­cern­ing quite dif­fer­ent top­ics. For exam­ple, one might use the famil­iar­ity of the indi­vid­ual with the tra­di­tions of the work­ers’ move­ment, the acu­ity of mem­o­ries asso­ci­ated with episodes of social strug­gle, the inter­est that he takes in this strug­gle inde­pen­dently of the judg­ment he might make of it (a con­dem­na­tion of a strug­gle inspired by rev­o­lu­tion­ary pes­simism and an enthu­si­as­tic nar­ra­tive of the events of 1936 of 1944 can often be found together). Or one might locate a ten­dency to the his­tory and, more par­tic­u­larly, the future of the pro­le­tariat, not­ing his reac­tions to for­eign pro­le­tar­i­ans, par­tic­u­larly to a rel­a­tively well-off pro­le­tariat like that in the United States. In other words, look for every­thing in the worker’s per­sonal life that might show the effects and sense of belong­ing to the work­ing class and also attempts at escape from from the con­di­tion of being a worker (atti­tudes about chil­dren, the edu­ca­tion they receive and projects ori­ented toward the future are par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant in this respect.)

From a rev­o­lu­tion­ary view­point, this kind of infor­ma­tion would have the inter­est of show­ing the man­ner in which a worker is joined with the class and whether his belong­ing to his group is or is not dif­fer­ent from that of a petit-bourgeois or a bour­geois to his group. Does the worker link his fate to all lev­els of his social exis­tence and, con­sciously or not, to that of his class? Can one con­firm con­cretely clas­sic, but too-often abstract, phrases class con­scious­ness or class atti­tude, and the idea from Marx that, unlike the bour­geois, the pro­le­tar­ian is not only a mem­ber of his class, but an indi­vid­ual within a com­mu­nity and con­scious of only being able to go beyond that by act­ing collectively?

Social­isme ou Bar­barie would like to solicit tes­ti­monies from work­ers and pub­lish them at the same time as it accords an impor­tant place to all forms of analy­sis con­cern­ing pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence. In this issue the reader will find the begin­ning of such a tes­ti­mony, one that leaves aside sev­eral of the points we have out­lined.15 Other such texts could broach these points in ways that go beyond those envi­sioned in this issue. In fact, it is impos­si­ble to impose an exact frame­work. If we have seemed to do so in the course of our expla­na­tions, and if we have pro­duced noth­ing but a ques­tion­naire, then this work would not be valu­able: a ques­tion imposed from the out­side might be an irri­tant for the sub­ject being ques­tioned, shap­ing an arti­fi­cial response or, in any case, imprint­ing upon it a char­ac­ter that it would not oth­er­wise have had. Our research direc­tions would be brought to bear even on nar­ra­tives that we pro­voke: we must be atten­tive to all forms of expres­sion that might advance con­crete analy­sis. As for the rest, the prob­lem is not the form taken by a doc­u­ment, but its inter­pre­ta­tion. Who will work out the rela­tion­ships under­stood as sig­nif­i­cant between such and such responses? Who will reveal from beneath the explicit con­tent of a doc­u­ment the inten­tions and atti­tudes that inspired it, and jux­ta­pose the tes­ti­monies? The com­rades of Social­isme ou Bar­barie? But would this not run counter to their inten­tions, given that they pro­pose a kind of research that would enable work­ers to reflect upon their expe­ri­ence? This prob­lem can­not be resolved arti­fi­cially, par­tic­u­larly not at this first step in the work. In any case, the inter­pre­ta­tion, from wher­ever it comes, will remain con­tem­po­rary with the text being inter­preted. It can only impress if it is judged to be accu­rate by the reader, some­one who is able to find another mean­ing in the mate­ri­als we sub­mit to him. We hope it will be pos­si­ble to con­nect the authors with texts in a col­lec­tive cri­tique of the doc­u­ments. For the moment, our goal is to gather these mate­ri­als: in this, we count on the active sup­port of those sym­pa­thetic with this journal.

—Trans­lated by Stephen Hastings-King

  • 1. Translator’s Note: This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 11, dated July, 1952. It was reprinted in the col­lec­tion Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie (Paris: Droz, 1971). A scan of the orig­i­nal can be con­sulted at the Pro­jet de scan­ner­i­sa­tion de la revue Social­isme ou Bar­barie. In com­pos­ing this text, Lefort used L’oeuvre com­pletes de Karl Marx pub­lished in Paris by Alfred Costes between 1948 and 1953. For rea­sons of con­sis­tency in ter­mi­nol­ogy and tone, I have trans­lated quo­ta­tions directly from the French and left the orig­i­nal pag­i­na­tion. Social­isme ou Bar­barie oper­ated in Paris from 1948-1966. This essay is part of the turn to the soci­o­log­i­cally ori­ented approach to the work­ing class fun­da­men­tal for the group’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary project, in par­tic­u­lar from 1953 through 1957. My thanks to Kelly Grotke.
  • 2. Marx, La mis­ère de la philoso­phie, Costes ed, 135.
  • 3. Translator’s Note: I retain the phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal term “com­port­ment” through­out this piece. The term refers to the struc­ture of behav­iors or atti­tudes toward an envi­ron­ment or sit­u­a­tion. It is sym­met­ri­cal with the empha­sis on over­all his­tor­i­cal direc­tion that one encoun­ters in this essay as well.
  • 4. Translator’s Note: I left this in French. It is asso­ci­ated with the Annales School of French his­tory. There is no good Eng­lish equiv­a­lent: I have seen “cog­ni­tive tool­box” used. The term “world­view” used in trans­la­tions of Wil­helm Dilthey’s hermeneu­tics is log­i­cally closer, even as the social-history ori­ented method­olo­gies pio­neered by the Annales School made of men­tal­ité a quite dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory that refers to a more mate­r­ial ori­en­ta­tion toward a historically-specific world.
  • 5. Idéolo­gie alle­mande, 242.
  • 6. Cf. The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo.
  • 7. Economie poli­tique et Philoso­phie, 34.
  • 8. Idéolo­gie alle­mande, 223.
  • 9. Ibid., 229
  • 10. Ibid„ p. 229.
  • 11. Ibid., p. 230.
  • 12. I am think­ing of the work by Georges Duveau, La vie ouvrière sous le Sec­ond Empire (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1946).
  • 13. Trans­la­tor Note: The worker avant-garde is the cen­ter of Social­isme ou Barbarie’s con­struc­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory. I kept the term “avant-garde” in favor of “van­guard” – an alter­nate pos­si­bil­ity for ren­der­ing the term in Eng­lish – in order to avoid con­fu­sion with Lenin’s Van­guard Party.
  • 14. Paul Romano, “The Amer­i­can Worker,” trans­lated in Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 1, and Eric Albert, “Témoignage” in Les Temps Mod­ernes, juil­let 1952.
  • 15. G. Vivier, “La vie en usine” in Social­isme ou Bar­barie no. 11.